Artists' Week: Adelaide Festival of Arts

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
Curator: Julie Robinson
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
28 February - 30 May 2004

There was a palpable air of relief at the return Artists' Week 2004 following its 'disappearance' from Peter Sellars 'community festival ' of 2002. As he was leaving Adelaide just prior to the launch of the remains of his controversial program, a dedicated group of locals hurriedly secured modest funding for Elastic, a series of forums and talks that kept the concept of Artists' Week alive during this troubled period. Unlike many other major festivals, Adelaide has always included a substantial visual arts component that is headlined by Artists' Week and the Art Gallery of South Australia's Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Having attended all but three Artists' Weeks since its inception I was again eager to be annoyed, excited, bored, challenged, outraged and inspired. On all counts, I was far from disappointed.

The dissertations of the keynote speakers set the general tone of Artists' Week which risked being a monumental downer as much discussion focussed on the inequities of the artist/curator relationship and the politics of art making in a time when the world is (all but) at war. The first of the two keynote speakers, outspoken art critic, curator, cultural commentator, university lecturer and US showman, Dave Hickey, was introduced by the National Gallery of Victoria's/Melbourne University's Charles Green as 'a dangerous man'. In a scarcely disguised critique of the Adelaide Biennial he protested the growth of 'ephemeral' art forms such as video and installation by calling (I think) for a return to object based art. This would at least give us something to remember. Hickey then launched into a diatribe that condemned governmental 'control' of the arts, Biennales as 'trade shows' and uneducated curators as 'public servants and institutional patrons'. With considerable charm and formidable stand up comedy skills he threw down an empty gauntlet leaving us with a challenge that many arts workers in Australia have been agonising over for years. That said, I have never so enjoyed a lecture that I have gotten so little out of.

If Professor Hickey seemed to represent every American stereotype then the second keynote speaker Anna Somers Cocks, founding editor of The Art Newspaper and a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1973-87) was British to the core. Somers Cocks took the approach of an ethical journalist in her talk about making art in difficult times. An authority of both antiquity and contemporary art she began her dissertation by commenting on the looting of the Baghdad Museum and the Taliban's destruction of the monumental Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The wider implications of these examples she suggested, provided the tragic backdrop for current practice. Somers Cocks spoke of the way in which American artists had responded to the War on Terror/Iraq invasion and compared this to the works of Adelaide Biennial artists Linda Wallace, Mike Parr and Silvia Velez, who fared somewhat better. With a fascinating and exquisitely crafted speech Somers Cocks seemed to leave little room for questions from an audience, who after showing their considerable appreciation, sat in silence.

Both the Sacred Symposium and a day of talks entitled Untitled 2004 – The Last Art Forum programmed by NAVA (National Association for the Visual Arts), focussed on the current social and political context for cultural production in Australia. For the former session which was chaired by film maker Rachel Perkins, high profile speakers such as Senator Aden Ridgeway, Marcia Langton, Banduk Marika, Djon Mundine, Ningali Lawford Wolf, Mundaway Yunupingu and Stephen Page all but abandoned the Is art good medicine for reconciliation? brief to address the broader picture of Indigenous disadvantage while touching on art, spirituality and traditional cultural practices. While nearly all of the talks in this session had a familiar ring to them, that is, the enduring difficulties of Indigenous Australians, their continuing currency highlighted the lack of progress on the so-called path to reconciliation. At one point Perkins, Langton, Marika and Ridgeway switched the focus to Aotearoa/New Zealand where they felt that at least some progress had been made.

NAVA’s forums which sailed dangerously close to ivory tower politics with an overwhelming number of University lecturers on the platform was rescued by several moments of brilliance. Indigenous speakers Margot Neale (National Museum of Australia) and Franchesca Cubillo (Tandanya, National Aboriginal Cultural Institute) delivered inspiring talks on the use of humour as a political weapon and the Eddie Burrup affair respectively. The prize for iconoclasm, however, went to Dr Simon Longstaff (St James Ethics Centre) who in a few minutes smashed the myth of the antiauthoritarian, larrikin Australian by suggesting that in recent times, from Tampa to Iraq, we have buckled under the weight of governmental propaganda with extraordinary passivity.

On the third day Artists' Week had switched venues from Adelaide University's spacious Elder Hall to the Art Gallery of South Australia. While there is no better venue for this event, the Gallery's facilities proved to be quite inadequate for the large numbers of people attending. Caught by surprise, for Photography in Global Focus many of us were relegated to a lecture theatre behind the gallery where one could watch the proceedings on a large screen that seemed to magnify the technical difficulties being experienced in the main venue. As such I think it is unfair to talk about this series of talks from my remote site. I missed Art, War and Civilisation which drew even larger crowds leaving space only outside the gallery and lecture theatre where loud speakers were installed to accommodate the frustrated overflow. This series of talks was chaired by Margaret Throsby AM (ABC) and included artists Wendy Sharpe and Mike Parr. It was by all accounts most interesting, however, there was more than enough discussion of these issues over the week to satisfy more than one's most basic needs.

At the Theatre of Art which attempted to examine the changed relationship between artists and the art museum in the age of the Biennale, Elizabeth Ann McGregor's (Museum of Contemporary Art) impressive chairing abilities failed to ignite any meaningful debate in an apparently comatose audience. To be fair, days of talks can be very tiring. With Isabel Carlos (Sydney Biennale) 'missing in action', of the other speakers, only artist Fiona Hall cut to the chase by describing Biennale curators as 'tribal chieftains' and 'glorified shoppers'. Alex Danko's arguments were disguised in a highly entertaining performance of the 'artist as clown' while Nick Waterlow (Ivan Dougherty Gallery), the very model of a modern curator, fielded any criticism of his distinguished career with dignity.

Artists' Week 2004 was not of course just about war and the battles between artists and curators. Adelaide writer and critic Stephanie Radok stole the show by daring to talk about the Adelaide Biennial during Critic's Choice, a forum dealing with issues of art criticism. While this was something the audience wanted to talk about, ultimately the attention turned to Djon Mundine who was charged with the odious responsibility of explaining how non-Indigenous critics might go about critiquing the work of Indigenous artists. Although Julianne Pierce's (Australian Network for Art and Technology) session Voyage to the Outer Limits-Science and New Media in Modern Art sometimes strayed beyond those outer limits it was without doubt an entertaining two hours packed with stimulating new media issues. Liz Hughes (Experimenta), Oron Catts (SymbioticA) and writer, Darren Tofts, all pushed the boundaries of good taste in a session that ended with a discussion on the notion of 'cyber death' and the act of killing your cyber pets.

On my final day in Adelaide while preparing to return to Brisbane I decided I should visit the galleries rather than attend the last day of Artists' Week which was the Architecture Symposium. At Adelaide's Festival Centre, however, I stumbled upon the live taping of the ABC's Critical Mass and could not resist hearing Clive James, Graeme Blundell and Sasha Horler talking about the Biennial. James, with considerable argument from Horler and little from Blundell scored the Biennial at 'less than zero' later revising his score to two out of five for no apparent reason. Dismissing this Biennial of photo-media works by comparing the works with the Tom Roberts paintings upstairs, James joined the nonbelievers and positioned himself unwittingly with the likes of Dave Hickey. Confusing the work of Derek Kreckler and Rosemary Laing, however, James appeared to be a little out of his depth. Dismissive attitudes aside, I was in a more generous mood finding Julie Robinson's Biennial, which responds to a preponderance of photomedia work in current Australian practice, considerably more interesting than critics from the entertainment sector.

It is the work of Derek Kreckler and Destiny Deacon that one first encounters upon entering the gallery. While the works of these two artists could not be more different there is a wry sense of humour at work in both. At risk of appearing a little old fashioned I was immediately struck by the astonishing beauty of Kreckler's marine photographs where parts of the image appear to have fallen neatly onto the floor as three dimensional balls leaving holes in the landscape. While these works are open to various conceptual interpretations it is the sense of an unstable landscape, beautiful yet foreboding and mysterious, that most affected me. Deacon continues to show no mercy in works that often concentrate on the (ridiculous) stereotypes afforded to Indigenous Australians. Devastatingly funny and disturbingly unequivocal is My boomerang did come back in which we see a bloodied boomerang in an equally bloodied hand.

The contributions of Sylvia Velez, Linda Wallace and Mike Parr also deal with global political and human rights issues in vastly different ways. Velez's wall of Post-it notes containing tiny pictures of anti Iraq War demonstrations give us a sense of the depth of global protest. Wallace provided a comfort zone in the gallery in which we could watch a wall of images that focus on Palestinian uprisings, the Moscow Theatre Siege and the Gulf War in a work that questions the implications of watching news as entertainment. 'Extreme artist', Mike Parr on the other hand brutally extracts us from any sense of comfort with a punishing video work where his un-anaesthetised face and lips are stitched in protest against Australia's policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. While all of these works are worthy efforts to deal with painful issues one is never really sure of their effectiveness, and of course that is only a criticism if the artists had intended their works to have results.

There are a number of spectacular photographic works in this exhibition where the photographic object appears to overwhelm its content. This is certainly the case in Deborah Paauwe's undeniably dramatic works of young women with painted faces and clothed in costumes that are enhanced by the camera's ability to record detail. Bill Henson, minus the abject sleaze of his earlier works, again concentrates on adolescence in a dark and moody series of works that seem more intent on the generation of atmosphere than an exploration of any particular issue. This Henson does with consummate skill. Liu Xiao Xian's unframed photographs of Chinese immigrant families transplanted into global tourist destinations are also spectacular objects. The unsettling sense of these families in the world's most recognisable locations being nowhere in particular, however, ensures that Liu 's content maintains a hold on his audience.

Rosemary Laing might also fall into this category but like Liu her content saves the day. In a series of works that explore the 'precarious nature of white Australia's relationship to a landscape so embedded in with Indigenous culture', Laing with assistance from Stephen Birch, generates an acute sense of foreign intrusion on a desert landscape. Of the other artists looking at elements of landscape Adam Geczy and Peter Sculthorpe's picturesque installation of scenes recorded at Port Arthur requires a knowledge of its turbulent criminal history to be more than just beautiful. James Guerts' works which use the landscape as a metaphor for broader issues, such as the arrival of refugees in Australian water, tend to get lost in obscure means of communicating ideas while David Haines magnificent video of a forest of falling trees seems to be little more than that. Perhaps the most interesting of works dealing with landscape are Bronwyn Wright's photographs taken over a period of time at a swamp near Darwin. The swamp is visited by hoons at night and herself by day. Wright has not been served well here, however, as except for a small didactic panel there is little sense of her all important and fascinating process that records the development of a relationship between the artist, the night visitors and the site.

Given that Wright's unseen presence is an essential part of her work it could in some respects be seen as a form of self-portraiture. Adventurous portraiture is also the turf of Adelaide based artists Darren Siwes and Justene Williams both of whom produced their works overseas, in England and Japan respectively. While Siwes' work was inspired by 'notions of class superiority', only the location has changed since we were introduced to his works in Brenda Croft's Biennial of 2000. Williams will be new to most viewers and we see her wrapped in supermarket plastic bags that reflect her claustrophobia on a hot day in Tokyo. Although she has succeeded in producing a strange and somewhat comical series of works it is hard to imagine that these works are among the best Australia has to offer.

In a photo media exhibition that seems to cover every base, no show would be complete without David Rosetzky, Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt and Craig Walsh. Rosetzky's three-screen piece, in which we see three couples alternately engage in low key existential crises, delicately balances a faux documentary style with performance and a haunting soundtrack that leaves its audience with a bitter-sweet after taste. In a different way Piccinini's work might also be positioned between the real and the surreal. Her sophisticated bio-medical Plasmid Region offers a believable creation fantasy or a science fiction that becomes less of a fiction as we speak. Moffatt's 'hilarious' video Love takes scenes from American movies of the 1970s and turns them on their head in a work that is focussed on the ostensibly lighter side of love, lust and violence. The isolation of frequently unpleasant celluloid encounters between men and women, however, ultimately renders this work uncomfortable viewing.

One of the most popular works in this Biennial was that of Craig Walsh. Screening his work in an open doorway, which is part of the gallery wall, Walsh generated a vicarious encounter between two apparently disparate audiences, one at a rock event and the other in the gallery. His projection of a passing parade of rock fans, apparently peering into the gallery, exploited both the architecture of the space and the cultural conditioning of audiences to produce a voyeuristic encounter that made riveting viewing. Like all of the works in this Biennial Walsh's work is representative of a maturity in current Australian photo media practice. To return to the live taping of Critical Mass, Graeme Blundell had noted that the Biennial might well have been put together by an advertising executive. What I think he was saying is that this is an audience friendly exhibition that, notwithstanding Mike Parr's difficult work, would interest most of the audience most of the time. While the 2004 Adelaide Biennial might lack the outrageous provocation that we are seeing in new photo-media work from China (for instance) and therefore seem a little tame, there is a strong sense of technical refinement and innovative ideas aplenty in this solid survey.